Fr Michael Hill - Statement by Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor

 Statement by Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor regarding the case of Father Michael Hill, dated 19 July 2000: Fr Michael Hill, a priest of Arundel and Brighton diocese, was convicted in 1997 of indecent assaults on children and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. Following that conviction I made a statement on 9 May 1997 to express my sadness and my concern for those who had suffered through his actions, and to offer them whatever care and pastoral support the diocese is able to offer. My primary reaction throughout has been one of distress and concern for the victims who have been so scarred by the abuse of a priest. Although care and pastoral support are available to the victims I know that nothing can undo the damage that has been done. This is my greatest sadness. Questions were also raised in some media reports at that time about what the diocese, and I as the bishop, had known about Fr Hill's actions prior to his conviction. To set the record straight, I wrote an article in the 'Catholic Herald' in May 1997. In the light of similar questions being raised now, I restate below the position as explained in that article, expanded in one or two places. In some media reports the implication has been drawn that I was aware at the time of the offences of Fr Hill that have since come to light and responded by moving him from parish to parish. This is simply not true. After Fr Hill had completed a normal term at Merstham, he was appointed to Godalming. Following a period of disagreement and unrest in the parish (wholly unconnected with any question of child abuse) I realised that this was not a good appointment and in January 1981 moved him to Heathfield. I have stated openly and clearly that some issues regarding Fr Hill's behaviour were raised with me prior to 1983. My reaction was to challenge him and require him to undergo assessment and counselling. It was only in 1983 that allegations of a specific and more serious nature were made and I immediately took action: removing Fr Hill from the parish, and ensuring he received further professional assessment and later therapy. In the light of the assessment I withdrew his license to work in a parish and for 18 months he worked in a commercial office. The advice I had received in 1983 included an option that he might work in some restricted pastoral role outside of a parish. In 1985 I decided to follow this option and he was offered an industrial chaplaincy. Of course it is true to say that if the strict procedures for child protection that are now in place in Arundel and Brighton Diocese had been in operation then, the matter would have been handled differently. I maintain that with the facts then known to me the decisions made at that time in his regard were not irresponsible. Proceeding from this particular case, I would like to make two comments. First of all, it is always quite difficult to look back over 20 years or so and to recall attitudes to child abuse that were common-place at that time. With hindsight, what still surprises me is the amount of genuine ignorance that there was, not only among bishops and priests, but also in society at large, including the medical profession, about the compulsive nature of child abuse. To my knowledge no direction or instruction on this matter was given in seminary formation at that time, and doctors and psychiatrists to whom I have spoken have also admitted their comparative ignorance, at that time, of these issues. This is not to excuse but rather to explain the inadequate measures taken in times past, not only for child protection but also for truly confident and accurate assessment by professional people. It is now clear that child abuse is not rarely encountered in the community at large and this distressing fact is now more openly recognised. The second point I want to stress is to renew my endorsement of the very strict guidelines for child protection which were issued by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales in 1994. The procedures introduced in the Dioceses are a recognition that the Church accepts its responsibilities in this area and is determined that any inadequate reaction in the past will not be repeated in the future. The full text of the Bishops' Conference document: 'Child Abuse - Pastoral and Procedural Guidelines 1994 - click on: